Monday, October 31, 2005

Not Your Father's Blowback

Readers of this site will be familiar with my contention that Iraq has, in many ways, replaced Afghanistan as the central hub of international jihadism. Iraq is today what Afghanistan was in the 1980s in terms of providing a locus for training, equipping, indoctrinating and a network of contacts for aspiring and accomplished jihadis. It is what Swopa frequently calls, "The world's most expensive school for terrorism." Expensive for us that is. For the participants, the tuition is rather affordable.

In a recent article appearing in Foreign Affairs, terrorism expert Peter Bergen and a co-author Alec Reynolds discuss the ramifications from the roiling conflict in Iraq in terms of the next generation of international terrorists. This group is what some call the "Class of 2005" - though there is an unfortunate likelihood that there will be an annual graduating class for the foreseeable future. First, some background from the authors:

When the United States started sending guns and money to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, it had a clearly defined Cold War purpose: helping expel the Soviet army, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And so it made sense that once the Afghan jihad forced a Soviet withdrawal a decade later, Washington would lose interest in the rebels. For the international mujahideen drawn to the Afghan conflict, however, the fight was just beginning. They opened new fronts in the name of global jihad and became the spearhead of Islamist terrorism. The seriousness of the blowback became clear to the United States with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center: all of the attack's participants either had served in Afghanistan or were linked to a Brooklyn-based fund-raising organ for the Afghan jihad that was later revealed to be al Qaeda's de facto U.S. headquarters. The blowback, evident in other countries as well, continued to increase in intensity throughout the rest of the decade, culminating on September 11, 2001.
But that is only part of the story. According to Bergen and Reynolds, the conflict in Iraq creates the likelihood of a more prolonged, capable and determined "blowback." As with so many of our other vital foreign policy concerns (counter-proliferation, campaign for hearts and minds, North Korea, etc.), Iraq is actually sucking the life out of the effort to contain the blowback, somewhat ironically, from Iraq.

The current war in Iraq will generate a ferocious blowback of its own, which -- as a recent classified CIA assessment predicts -- could be longer and more powerful than that from Afghanistan. Foreign volunteers fighting U.S. troops in Iraq today will find new targets around the world after the war ends. Yet the Bush administration, consumed with managing countless crises in Iraq, has devoted little time to preparing for such long-term consequences. Lieutenant General James Conway, the director of operations on the Joint Staff, admitted as much when he said in June that blowback "is a concern, but there's not much we can do about it at this point in time." Judging from the experience of Afghanistan, such thinking is both mistaken and dangerously complacent.
One of the more problematic aspects of the seemingly inevitable blowback from Iraq is that our ultimate "success" in terms of creating a peaceful, stable, unified democratic nation will not mean that the blowback threat will be eliminated, or even significantly reduced. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Sunnis decide en masse to renounce the use of violence and support for the insurgency in favor of the political process in December, and support for foreign jihadists, and the genesis of the domestic version, dries up. The problem is that even in this outlandish best case scenario, the jihadists who have already attained a degree from Baghdad's Terrorism University will then return home with the training, indoctrination and contacts they acquired in school. As with the Afghan conflict, these veterans will not be integrated back into their countries of origin, and will instead destabilize those nations and target American interests at home and abroad. Some such veterans have already returned home or traveled to other conflict regions to ply their newfound skills.

On the other hand, if the Iraq conflict lingers for years to come (the more likely scenario at this juncture), and the central Sunni region continues to be a hotbed for violence, insurgent activity and jihadist training, there will be subsequent classes of terrorists that will eventually depart to wreak havoc in other locales. In other words, this aspect of the campaign is a lose-lose scenario. This is one of the central fallacies of the "flypaper theory." The flies don't stay stuck forever, and the ones that depart are stronger and more capable than before.

The foreign volunteers in Afghanistan saw the Soviet defeat as a victory for Islam against a superpower that had invaded a Muslim country. Estimates of the number of foreign fighters who fought in Afghanistan begin in the low thousands; some spent years in combat, while others came only for what amounted to a jihad vacation. The jihadists gained legitimacy and prestige from their triumph both within the militant community and among ordinary Muslims, as well as the confidence to carry their jihad to other countries where they believed Muslims required assistance. When veterans of the guerrilla campaign returned home with their experience, ideology, and weapons, they destabilized once-tranquil countries and inflamed already unstable ones. [...]

The Afghan experience was important for the foreign "holy warriors" for several reasons. First, they gained battlefield experience. Second, they rubbed shoulders with like-minded militants from around the Muslim world, creating a truly global network. Third, as the Soviet war wound down, they established a myriad of new jihadist organizations, from al Qaeda to the Algerian GIA to the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf.
As alluded to above, Bergen and Reynolds make a compelling case that we can actually expect worse from this new generation of Iraq-spawned terrorists than their Afghan-trained predecessors. This is not your father's blowback.

Several factors could make blowback from the Iraq war even more dangerous than the fallout from Afghanistan. Foreign fighters started to arrive in Iraq even before Saddam's regime fell. They have conducted most of the suicide bombings -- including some that have delivered strategic successes such as the withdrawal of the UN and most international aid organizations -- and the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, another alumnus of the Afghan war, is perhaps the most effective insurgent commander in the field. Fighters in Iraq are more battle hardened than the Afghan Arabs, who fought demoralized Soviet army conscripts. They are testing themselves against arguably the best army in history, acquiring skills in their battles against coalition forces that will be far more useful for future terrorist operations than those their counterparts learned during the 1980s. Mastering how to make improvised explosive devices or how to conduct suicide operations is more relevant to urban terrorism than the conventional guerrilla tactics used against the Red Army. U.S. military commanders say that techniques perfected in Iraq have been adopted by militants in Afghanistan.

Finally, foreign involvement in the Iraqi conflict will likely lead some Iraqi nationals to become international terrorists. The Afghans were glad to have Arab money but were culturally, religiously, and psychologically removed from the Afghan Arabs; they neither joined al Qaeda nor identified with the Arabs' radical theology. Iraqis, however, are closer culturally to the foreigners fighting in Iraq, and many will volunteer to continue other jihads even after U.S. troops depart.
As I have mentioned before, we are actually producing Iraqi terrorists where there were none before. As Marc Sageman and others have chronicled, Iraqi citizens had, prior to the invasion, eschewed participation in foreign jihads, and virtually no Iraqis could be found amongst the ranks of the Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations. As a result of this invasion, and the associated radicalizing effects, that will change.

President George W. Bush and others have suggested that it is better for the United States to fight the terrorists in Baghdad than in Boston. It is a comforting notion, but it is wrong on two counts. First, it posits a finite number of terrorists who can be lured to one place and killed. But the Iraq war has expanded the terrorists' ranks: the year 2003 saw the highest incidence of significant terrorist attacks in two decades, and then, in 2004, astonishingly, that number tripled. (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously complained in October 2003 that "we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." An exponentially rising number of terrorist attacks is one metric that seems relevant.) Second, the Bush administration has not addressed the question of what the foreign fighters will do when the war in Iraq ends. It would be naive to expect them to return to civilian life in their home countries. More likely, they will become the new shock troops of the international jihadist movement.
There is no way around the fact that there are already jihadists who have received training and expertise in Iraq, and that many of these veterans will disperse to sow destruction elsewhere. But the authors do focus on ways to mitigate the blowback, and staunch the bleeding going forward. The solutions take the form of a multi-pronged strategy: political progress/marginalization, border security, neighborhood cooperation and intelligence leg work.

American success in Iraq would deny today's jihadists the symbolic victory that they seek. But with that outcome so uncertain, U.S. policymakers must focus on dealing with the jihadists in Iraq now -- by limiting the numbers entering the fight and breaking the mechanism that would otherwise generate blowback after the war.

The foreign jihadists in Iraq need to be separated from the local insurgents through the political process. Success in that mission will require Iraq's Sunni Arabs to remain consistently engaged in the political process. Shiite and Kurdish leaders will have to back down from their efforts to create semiautonomous states in the north and the south. But the prospects for these developments appear dim at the moment, and reaching a durable agreement may increasingly be beyond U.S. influence.

To raise the odds of success, the United States must deliver more security to central Iraq. This means securing Iraq's borders, especially with Syria, to block the flow of foreign fighters into the country. The repeated U.S. military operations in western Iraq since May have shown that at present there are insufficient forces to disrupt insurgent supply lines running along the Euphrates River to the Syrian border. Accomplishing this objective would require either more U.S. troops or a much larger force of well-trained Iraqi troops. For the moment, neither of those options seems viable, and so additional U.S. soldiers should be rotated out of Iraq's cities and into the western deserts and border towns, transitioning the control of certain urban areas to the Iraqi military and police.

Foreign governments must also silence calls to jihad and deny radicals sanctuary once this war ends. After the Soviet defeat, jihadists too often found refuge in places as varied as Brooklyn and Khartoum, where radical clerics offered religious justifications for continuing jihad. To date, some governments have not taken the necessary steps to clamp down on the new generation of jihadists. Although the Saudis largely silenced their radical clerics following the terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May 2003, 26 clerics were still permitted late in 2004 to call for jihad against U.S. troops in Iraq. The United States must press the Saudi government to end these appeals and restrict its nationals from entering Iraq. In the long run, measures against radical preaching are in Riyadh's best interest, too, since the blowback from Iraq is likely to be as painful for Saudi Arabia as the blowback from Afghanistan was for Egypt and Algeria during the 1990s.

Finally, the U.S. intelligence community, in conjunction with foreign intelligence services, should work on creating a database that identifies and tracks foreign fighters, their known associates, and their spiritual mentors. If such a database had been created during the Afghan war, the United States would have been far better prepared for al Qaeda's subsequent terror campaign.
Some of these options, such as the political/marginlization strategy, are tactically sound though highly difficult to execute. Others, such as shifting military assets from cities to border regions, I think are compelling, and the lack of adequate troop strength is very real, but moving troops out of urban areas will carry its own costs. Maybe the best of bad options. Either way, we must heed the authors' advice and realize that the risks of highly lethal and pervasive blowback are very real and have to enter into our overall plans going forward. Without such planning, the swarm of flies will be even more lethal. Flypaper indeed.

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